NASA’s as­teroid col­lec­tion con­tainer is leak­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - BY CHRIS­TIAN DAVENPORT chris­tian.davenport@wash­post.com

The space­craft that reached out and grabbed a sam­ple from an as­teroid last week may have col­lected so much ma­te­rial that it pre­vented the lid of the sam­ple holder from clos­ing prop­erly, al­low­ing some of the pre­cious dust and rocks to leak out, NASA of­fi­cials said Fri­day.

Now the space agency is faced with the daunt­ing task of stow­ing away the ma­te­ri­als it does have with­out spilling a sig­nif­i­cant amount, a del­i­cate pro­ce­dure made all the more dif­fi­cult by the weight­less en­vi­ron­ment of space and the space­craft be­ing about 200 mil­lion miles away.

On Tues­day, an arm of the OSIRIS-REx space­craft, de­signed by Lock­heed Martin, touched the sur­face of the as­teroid Bennu and fired ni­tro­gen gas that stirred up gravel and dust to be cap­tured by a col­lec­tion de­vice.

But the blast ap­pears to have kicked up so much gravel and dust that some of it got jammed in the de­vice, keep­ing the lid open. Still, NASA of­fi­cials said they were con­fi­dent they have a large sam­ple — far more than the 60 grams re­quired — and will be able to stow the col­lec­tion de­vice away with­out too much leak­ing out.

“I am highly con­fi­dent that the [op­er­a­tion] was suc­cess­ful, that it col­lected abun­dant mass,” said Dante Lau­retta, a plan­e­tary sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona and the prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor of the mis­sion. There was “def­i­nitely ev­i­dence of hun­dreds of grams of ma­te­rial, and pos­si­bly more. My big con­cern now is that the par­ti­cles are es­cap­ing. Be­cause we were al­most a vic­tim of our own suc­cess here, and some of the largest par­ti­cles left the . . . flap open.”

In­stead of try­ing to mea­sure the amount of ma­te­rial col­lected, as orig­i­nally planned, NASA now aims to store the col­lec­tion de­vice in the re­turn cap­sule as early as Tues­day. Mean­while, it is hold­ing the space­craft and col­lec­tion de­vice as steady as pos­si­ble, fear­ful that any ad­di­tional move­ment will cause more ma­te­rial to spill out.

“I was pretty con­cerned when I saw these images com­ing in, and I think the most pru­dent course of ac­tion is to very safely stow what we have and min­i­mize any fu­ture mass loss,” Lau­retta said.

But sci­en­tists won’t know how much ma­te­rial was col­lected un­til the space­craft re­turns to Earth — in 2023.

“We’re go­ing to have to wait till we get home to know pre­cisely how much we have, and as you can imag­ine that’s hard,” he said. “But the good news is we see a lot of ma­te­rial so where we are in the pos­i­tive sit­u­a­tion of hav­ing a lot more than the 60 grams that was re­quired here.”

The mis­sion was the first time NASA has ever taken a sam­ple from one of the es­ti­mated 1 mil­lion as­teroids in the so­lar sys­tem. Sci­en­tists be­lieve the ma­te­rial could shed light on how the uni­verse was formed and how water ended up on Earth.

More than 4.5 bil­lion years old, Bennu is as large as the Em­pire State Build­ing and looks like a gi­ant wal­nut that sci­en­tists be­lieve is full of sci­en­tific riches, such as car­bon and water locked away in­side clay ma­te­ri­als.

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